A test for Norm Coleman

With Republican Sen. Norm Coleman’s election last November, Minnesotans seemed to affirm a belief that he had reformed his chameleon ways. Minnesotans seemed to forgive past flip-flopping transgressions on issues such as privatization, party affiliation, abortion, a motorized Boundary Waters Canoe Area and education reform. During his campaign, Coleman even stood in firm opposition to President George W. Bush’s proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But after refusing to sign a bipartisan letter to oppose ANWR drilling last Tuesday, Coleman’s hue seems to have changed – again. We’re forced to wonder if the chameleon, now in office, has returned.

Coleman’s stance on ANWR has been difficult to decipher. During his campaign he initially said he supported drilling in ANWR. He backpedaled later that week, claiming his statements had been misunderstood and that he was rooted firmly in the environmental camp. Now, Coleman’s refusal to sign the anti-ANWR drilling letter seems curiously contradictory to the latter campaign vow. His Web site says: “I do not support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, at National Monuments or the Great Lakes. Our nation’s energy problems require a comprehensive approach that focuses on renewable, environmentally sound energy sources.”

As a first-year senator, Coleman needs to show Minnesotans that he stands for his values. Lacking the votes to allow drilling in ANWR as a stand-alone issue, there is a movement within the Senate to attach it as a rider to the budget bill. Opposing such a movement, among others, are Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. The senators drafted a letter urging Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., not to allow such a sensitive issue to come in via the back door. When presented with the letter to affirm his support of an oil exploration-free ANWR, however, Coleman declined. “(I)n the five minutes I spent on (the letter) I didn’t see much purpose in making a statement. If I was a senior senator, I might have redrafted it, but I’m just a freshman,” he said.

But this is the same man handpicked by the Bush administration to run for Senate. This is the same man who proudly said, “I take pride on having the ear of the president … it’s the kind of thing where if you have a relationship, that relationship allows you to get things done for your constituents – that’s a good thing.” Minnesota should not have to wait for Coleman to grow up.

Drilling in ANWR was the main issue in which Coleman differed from the Bush administration. Throughout the latter days of his campaign, Coleman repeatedly said he would not support drilling. Even if he had, the full wrath of the Bush administration would not have befallen him. Yet, rather than taking a stand against ANWR drilling, Coleman apparently did not see the purpose in making a statement that aligns with his pledges, promises and purported convictions.

Coleman’s signature on the letter protesting ANWR would have reaffirmed Minnesotans’ beliefs that he has mended his ways. Instead, Minnesotans are left blinking with doubt, searching the foliage for the purportedly environmentally minded senator they elected. Minnesotans will be watching the first-year senator closely, anxious to see if he stands for principles or opportunism.